Memorial Day and Nail Spa: From the Green of Vietnam to Toenails Painted with Nirvana

Ming Ming, Nga Pham, and Anna Nguyen toward the end of a long Friday. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

They came here because of war, though no one might think of it that way when sitting down in the massage chair to have Anna Nguyen or Ly Ngo bend gracefully over fingertips and sit with curved back over someone's feet. But Memorial Day just passed, and we remember all the men and women who gave their lives for this country's wars and freedom, which also leads to the men and women whose lives were changed during war when they aided us, and how they live here.

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At Nail Spa Boutique in Riverside, Kim Ngo sits on a low stool, where she spends her 8-10 hour days, trimming the excess cuticle from Charlie Freeman's toenails, then rubbing the dead skin off with a pumice tool, then rinsing the feet, drying them, massaging lotion into Freeman's calves. Ngo came to Riverside 20 years ago from Saigon. Freeman, who works in real estate, comes here once a month, and so do her husband, daughter, son, and her seven-year-old granddaughter. She considers pedicures a normal and necessary part of life, and laughs that, "Red makes my toes look better." Ngo finally strokes on the color, twenty toes -- Too Red.

She murmurs in Vietnamese that she doesn't miss Saigon so much because she makes a lot more money here, but there is wistfulness in her voice. Her husband was in a re-education camp, punished by the Vietnamese government after the war with America was over. Nail salons are everywhere in America, anchoring nearly every strip mall and indoor shopping plaza and mega-mall. Excellent Nails, Star Nails, Hot Nails -- thousands of doors out of which float the sharp smells of acetone and the lilting voices of Vietnamese women. "Mani-pedi" is now a part of American language because of women like these, who had to flee their homes.

The colors of work. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

Minh Pham is here at Nail Spa today, translating. His sister-in-law is at the table near the door, giving someone a manicure. Minh's mother worked for years at Nail Tyme, in Corona, and now works at Nail Soleil there.


Minh PhamMy father was in re-education camp for ten years for fighting alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War and for trying to flee the country by boat. While in the camp, he saw many of his comrades die from starvation, illnesses, and from being overworked. My father was forced to go into a land mine filled forest and clear trees and till the land to grow fruits and vegetables. Once a day, he was fed a small bowl of rice and a tablespoon of saltwater. While working, he would pick wild mushrooms and vegetation from the forest to eat. To keep him alive, my mother quit college to sell cigarettes and used clothes in the street of Saigon to buy my father medicine and dried fish to eat.

My mother had to find work in less than a month of coming to America in order to keep our family from becoming homeless. Working in the nail shop was the best fit because she was not required to know English and she knew family friends who owned Nail Shop in Riverside and Corona. She liked working in the nail shop because the tips helped her pay for food and she could learn English from talking to her customers. But over time, she developed asthma from breathing in the fumes from the nail shop. Her only dreams are for two her sons to graduate from college and to visit her seven siblings living in Vietnam.

Minh will graduate on June 15 with a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California, Riverside, where he worked for three years with me on a book of essays and poetry about his mother and father. For him, his mother bends over thousands of feet a year, and his father worked in a Chinese buffet restaurant.

Kim Dang checking her work at the last chair. | Photo: Douglas McCulloh

The chairs are all filled on a Friday night in May, just before Memorial Day.
Ten women work in Nail Spa on Arlington Avenue in Riverside, in a Target shopping plaza. The salon has been there for 15 years, and on a Friday night, it's always packed. My girls began coming here for their prom manicures, once or twice a year, and then for their eyebrows. No one does my daughter Rosette's eyebrows like Kim Dang, who was always so kind, so patient, and when she asked about my family, I realized I knew little about hers. Her husband was also in a re-education camp, and she came here 20 years ago from the Vietnamese city of Cuu Long.

The culture of Vietnamese-owned nail salons began in 1975, when twenty women arrived at a tent city called Hope Village near Sacramento. Tippi Hedren, the actress famous for appearing in the Hitchcock movie "The Birds," visited the refugee camp, and the women were fascinated with her painted nails. She arranged for them to attend beauty school, and an industry was born.

Now, more than 80 percent of California nail salons are owned by Vietnamese-born or Vietnamese-Americans, an estimated 45 percent of all American nail technicians are Vietnamese, and Orange County is the capital of the technology. From Florida to New York to Los Angeles, Vietnamese women dominate the business in salons which also offer eyebrow waxing, facials, and hair services. But sometimes customers forget how hard, physically, the technicians work, or that they've spent their own savings on technician training and licensing and the equipment of a salon, where the specialized chairs cost $5,000 to $10,000. Now and then, customers berate technicians for a smudge, or complain about a fill, or make fun of their language, or accuse them of talking about customers in Vietnamese -- I've seen the meanest blog posts about nail salon workers, and heard nail technicians say sadly that their work isn't always appreciated. But men seem to love the pampering -- Minh's cousin's favorite customer in Corona is a middle-aged African-American construction worker who comes for a mani-pedi twice a month, and leaves big tips and smiles.

Tonight, at Nail Spa, fifty to sixty women will relax in the big chairs, and ten women pull up stools and sit and bend and stand and stretch, with the tiny bottles of vivid paint sitting beside them patiently as the big Buddha who graces the altar at the front of the salon -- every salon as a Buddha, who is surrounded by flowers and incense and fruit. Offerings for a good day.

Ming Ming used New York Summer on Devan Benter, who always gets pink. | Photo: Douglas McCullohMing Ming spent half an hour on Devan Benter's toes, finishing with a hot pink called New York Summer. Benter comes in every two weeks for a different pink -- always pink. Ming came here in 2000 from Saigon, because her husband's family was already in Riverside. Nail salons and housing in Orange County are more expensive, and in Riverside, many of the women found affordable housing and established family.

Ly Ngo came here 20 years ago from Saigon, and now is the manager of Nail Spa. She works mainly at the milky-green Lucite table near the front, doing French tip manicures and fills, keeping an eye on the sign-in sheet and the money, helping another customer into the ubiquitous flat plastic sandals to wear while the polish dries. She directs another customer to Anna Nguyen, who came here 10 years ago from Saigon, and listens patiently to a customer speak about her family, her work. She overhears cell phone arguments with boyfriends. Do they speak about the past, about the foods or cousins they miss in Saigon? Their customers will likely never know.

An old commercial for Palmolive dish detergent used to come on television when I was a child -- Madge, the manicurist, would listen sympathetically to a story about a woman with dishpan hands -- and Madge would say something like, "Try Palmolive, you're soaking in it!" I remember wondering who ever went to someone like Madge -- it was the 1970s, and most of the women I knew never had painted nails. My girlfriends and I painted our own fingernails, inexpertly, with polish we bought from Kmart or Alpha Beta. I had never met a manicurist in my life. Manicures cost $70 or more, and were the province of the wealthy.

But during that same time, on that same television, images of America's war in Vietnam frightened me, terrified all of us kids watching as napalm fires raged to the sky and children ran away, as soldiers were airlifted in helicopters and then fleeing Vietnamese civilians were huddled in those same helicopters, leaving their country behind. After the war's end, also left behind were the men of South Vietnam who were sent to re-education camps.

Again, Minh Pham:

In the earlier cycles of immigration, like the boat people during the late 1970s, a lot of the people who escaped had to stay in the refugee camps until the country where they landed allowed them to enter. If they were not allowed to enter then they were shipped back to Vietnam. Boat people landed everywhere: Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines), European countries (a lot landed in France and England), and of course the U.S. Some countries just did not accept the refugees for unknown reasons.

Then later, in the late 1980s to the early 1990s, a lot of people were allowed to come to the U.S. under the Humanitarian Operation. Our family was allowed to come under this program. My family and most of the Vietnamese community just call this program "H.O." The people who immigrated during this cycle generally flew by plane to their host country. During this cycle a lot of people who made it out of Vietnam during the first cycle by boat, in the paragraph above, they became a host family for close relatives who were still living back in Vietnam. Basically our family was allowed to come to the U.S. under the "H.O.," but we had a close family friend of my grandfather host our family, do paperwork in the U.S. and let us know what we needed to do for the U.S. to approve our move to America. The process took about two years for my family to get all the loose ends tied up before we could move to the States.

Under "H.O.," families of Southern Vietnamese soldiers who suffered persecution from the Communists were allowed to come to America. Our family was allowed to come to the U.S. under "H.O." in 1994. My mother was studying literature and law in Vietnam before the Viet Cong invaded Saigon. My parents chose to come to America so my brother and I could go to college. My mother told me that if I stayed in Vietnam, I would be selling lottery tickets on the streets or making carpenter nails in a factory. My eighth aunt and her daughter, my female cousin, actually worked in a factory hammering nails for a while. They stopped working at the factory about two years ago. My other aunts helped the mother to get a job selling clothes in the outdoor market. My brother and I would not be allowed to get a good education because my father fought against North Vietnam during the war.

Ming Ming and Jennie Bennett. | Photo: Douglas McCullohJust as in the past, certain immigrant groups came to America and opened specific businesses -- Germans brewed beer, Italians opened pizza restaurants, Swiss ran dairies and made cheese -- now war has transformed California. Cambodian families dominate the doughnut industry, Hmong farmers specialize in certain crops, and three generations of the Bennett family are here at Nail Spa. A mother, two sisters, and a granddaughter come regularly, and today Jennie Bennett, 29, gets flowers painted onto her toenails.

Nga Pham, Minh's sister-in-law, is finishing Sylvia Villa's manicure at the table nearest the door. This is Pham's last week at Nail Spa, where she's been since it opened 15 years ago. She has saved enough, with her husband, to open their own place -- Tim Nails -- about seven miles from here. Villa, who comes every other week, will have Nirvana painted onto her nails, with a topcoat of glittery Big Money.

Pham's mother-in-law, at 61, still works six days a week for someone else, missing lunch many 10-hour days while cleaning up, and after twenty years, her joints ache, she has trouble breathing, and she is tired. But because she still uses a tiny brush to painstakingly apply vivid color to women's smallest toenails, one flick of her wrist over and over and over, her son Minh will become a poet. That is how it works, in war and love and re-invention.

Minh Pham's poetry has been published in The Diverse Arts Project, Verdad Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, and others. His nonfiction is forthcoming in The Rattling Wall.

About the Author

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Between Heaven and Here." She teaches at UCRiverside and works with photographer Douglas McCulloh to document the Inland Empire.


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